A boy with hoop dreams, the scope of which he could never have comprehended would one day come to fruition during those halcyon days of his youth in North Bessemer, Pa., would crank up shots during all hours of the day. Figuratively stepping into the shoes of Sihugo Green, an All-American from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh during the mid-1950s, Bobby Dibler won countless imaginary games with last-second shots. Never mind he was shooting into a rim without a backboard on a dirt court next to a railroad yard with only the sound of occasional passing freight trains.
“Our local mailman knew I liked basketball and, one day, he brought me a basketball rim,” said Dibler, who is still blazing a trail in that sport as coordinator of officials for several West Coast conferences at the age of 75. “I can remember getting some railroad spike-type nails and pounding the rim up on a telephone pole that was near the railroad yard. There was no backboard. It was just a rim. And that’s how I learned the game.”
A man who had crashed and burned emotionally in the aftermath of experiencing one of the most devastating life events imaginable routinely would stand in an El Paso, Texas, desert. Existing on a diet of canned green beans and whatever else he could get his stomach to hold down, a gaunt and faded Dibler searched for answers that were simply nowhere to be found. How in God’s name could any sense be made of his beloved wife, Carroll, and 20-year-old daughter, Kristin, being murdered before his very eyes during the early morning hours of June 11, 2000, by Kristin’s former boyfriend in the Diblers’ den? The next day, Dibler was supposed to be celebrating Carroll’s 56th birthday. Instead, he was making arrangements for her final resting place.
“A continuing healthy diet was not going on and, in my faith, I was very much waiting for the good Lord to call me home,” Dibler said recently in his first public comments about this horrific event. “I was ready if he thought it was the time, but I know that he felt I had more work to do in this life and, for that reason, I’m still here and healthy.”
Indeed, Dibler is here and he’s feeling as vital as ever. He would marry Mary “Missy” Haywood, herself widowed, a little more than nine years after those horrific early morning hours in El Paso sent his life into a free-fall. He would watch his surviving children — son Rob and daughters Kellie and Carrie — live fulfilled lives that would have made their mother proud. And well into his 70s, he has continued his life’s work as coordinator of officials for the Mountain West, Pac-12, Western Athletic, Big West, West Coast and Big Sky conferences. Retire? Why in the world would Dibler even think about that when he’s as beloved and accomplished as he is in his role of a supreme mover-and-shaker in men’s college basketball?
“Everything he does, he’s passionate about,” said Randy McCall, who has been an NCAA Division I official for 25 years. “He cares about the guys who are working for him. He cares about the game. He cares about the coaches he answers to and he cares about the administrations he answers to. Everything he does, there’s a passion that’s unmatchable, really.”
Just how much is the integrity of college basketball officiating in the western region of the United States being maintained under the comprehensive yet compassionate watch of Dibler? Where does one start? He played under the legendary Don Haskins at Texas Western (now Texas at El Paso), graduating a year before the Miners’ historic 72-65 victory against Adolph Rupp’s all-white Kentucky team in the 1966 NCAA championship game. First testing the waters of officiating at the age of 25 in 1968 at the high school level, Dibler would work more than 1,000 college games — including more than 50 NCAA tournament assignments — from 1973-93. Included in his spectacular resume are three Final Four assignments, including the 1982 and ’85 championship games.
Enlightenment for Others
So much wisdom and knowledge intertwined with compassion is stored inside Dibler’s head that to sit with him while reviewing questionable calls is to be enlightened without being intimidated. Officials don’t get taken to the woodshed under his direction. They get taken to an illuminating classroom. Veteran official David Hall has been the recipient of the Dibler Treatment and it’s an experience he recalls fondly.
“It was a play to the rim late in the game and it was a game-deciding call,” Hall said. “The RA (restricted area) came into play and I looked at it several times before Bobby called me because it was a game-deciding play. And it was just the way he approached it with me. He went through the different defenders and said, ‘What did you see with this defender, No. 22? Do you think he may have not been vertical? And what about No. 14? Was he in a legal guarding position?’ He didn’t leave any stone unturned in analyzing the play. But he never said to me, ‘You got it right,’ or, ‘You got it wrong.’ The play had already happened. What he did do was try to break it down with me kind of step by step and say, ‘Here are the things I want to make sure you considered when you made your ruling on the play.’ And I really appreciated that.”
Verne Harris, who has been a Division I official for 30 years, recalls a side of Dibler that went way beyond the mechanics of officiating. On Dec. 29, 2004, Harris lost his 13-year-old son, Verron, who had been afflicted with cerebral palsy. Dibler had still been trying to pull himself together after his tragedy four-and-a-half years earlier and his experience allowed him to connect emotionally with Harris with an impact few others could have achieved.
“I remember calling him up and we just basically cried on the phone for a couple of hours,” Harris said. “He had gone through a tragedy in his life. Just how he was there for me at the time and how compassionate he is, he’s just a great man. I actually reffed with Bobby and I’ve always known the kind of person he is. He’s just not like any other supervisor that I’ve been around and I’ve been around quite a few. He truly, truly, truly cares for all his staff and that’s unique. Most people — just trust me — they’re not all the same way. I don’t want to get into anybody else, but I just know during that time that he was caring about me and my family. It was just all about making sure that I was OK during that time.”
Dibler is OK, too, after all these years. Actually, he’s more than OK. He’s vital. And he has dared to be happy again even when that once seemed to be an impossible proposition. Nearly 18 years after the murder of his wife and youngest daughter, he endures as a model of what a man can make of himself with enough courage and desire in the aftermath of sheer devastation.
“Bobby has lived through tragedy and has come out positively on the other side,” said J.D. Collins, the NCAA national coordinator of men’s basketball officiating. “I am inspired by the guts it has taken to carry on when carrying on was daunting. Bobby Dibler is an inspiration to us all.”
Growing up in North Bessemer, about 10 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, little Bobby learned to find happiness at an early age. He had a complex relationship with his father, Jim, and stepmother, Betty, and was adopted and raised as an infant by his grandparents, James and Emma Rose Dibler. He knew of his natural mother, Clara Mae Chedwick, but only saw her infrequently. Dibler speaks sparingly of this family dynamic, but did say, “There was kind of a squabble between my mother and my father’s side about me. My father was in the service at that time, she had to work and who was going to keep the baby? It went into an adoption stage and everything (that happened) between that, I don’t have any idea.”
Jim and Betty moved to Amarillo, Texas, early in Dibler’s life, but he wasn’t deprived of a strong upbringing. James Dibler, a railroad yardmaster, raised him with a set of values that would serve him well later in life.
“He taught me to be polite as a little person, he taught respect, he taught me the clear understanding that you went to school every day and you did your homework and you made really good grades,” Dibler said. “I learned discipline from him and that carried over into college — you’re on time and you’re doing the right things all the time. You lived that way. You just didn’t turn that on and off.”
Dibler went on to join his father and stepmother in Amarillo when he was entering the eighth grade at the age of 13 in 1956 and, as he said, “I kind of fell in love with Texas and the Texas panhandle. I never moved back to Pennsylvania.” In addition to the values he learned from his grandparents, Bobby brought with him a remarkable left-handed jump shot that he had developed beside those railroad tracks in Pennsylvania.
Dibler continued to refine his skills at Amarillo High School and Amarillo Junior College before joining Haskins’ emerging Texas Western program as a junior in 1963. Playing with several of the players who would lead the Miners to the 1966 national championship, Dibler was a key contributor on teams that went 44-10 during his two years on the El Paso campus. He averaged 6.9 points per game on the 1963-64 team that Haskins later said could easily have won the national championship.
“What I learned for a lifetime was discipline,” Dibler said of his experience with Haskins, who died in 2008. “He was a very disciplined coach and we had a very disciplined style. In junior college, I averaged 21 or 22 points a game and that first year, he very quickly took me down to about six points a game. If we didn’t follow the rules and regulations, there was usually a pretty warm seat right next to him on the bench.”
35 Years Together
One of the cheerleaders for Texas Western during its ascent to dominance was a dark-haired beauty named Carroll, the daughter of an officer at the Air Force base in El Paso. She had a smile one didn’t forget and she had a certain class that Dibler found irresistible. It started out as a casual relationship. Mutual feelings intensified as they attended several classes together. “I don’t know if she was attracted to me, but I was clearly attracted to her,” Dibler recalled. Oh, she clearly was. Carroll invited Bobby to a party one night at the Dallas home of another cheerleader, heralding a courtship that led to Nov. 26, 1965, when they were married.
“She was always proper,” said Dibler, his voice growing heavier with emotion. “I don’t believe I ever heard her say a word of profanity throughout our life together. And she was very popular on campus. Just how cute she was, how pretty she was, she was named the class favorite one year. And then when I found out what a full person she was, what a genuine person she was, it was pretty easy to fall in love with her.”
Fate would give Bobby and Carroll nearly 35 years together, during which they raised their three daughters and a son. Dibler became one of the most accomplished collegiate basketball officials in the nation. He doubled as an executive at Proctor & Gamble while Carroll pursued a career in teaching. Dibler had come a long way from when he was that boy in Pennsylvania and the world was seemingly his for the taking. But then came those horrifying minutes — it was well after midnight on a Sunday — when Dibler, a deeply religious man, suffered a staggering blow from which he still is recovering. William Edward Henschel, Kristin’s 23-year-old former boyfriend, broke into the Dibler’s El Paso home and surprised Kristin and her boyfriend, Matt Kennedy, in the den. Bobby and Carroll were awakened by the sound of gunfire as Henschel started carrying out his unspeakable deed.
“I believe it was around 3 in the morning and my wife and I were in bed, asleep,” Dibler said. “Kristin and her boyfriend were in the den watching TV and we heard shots in the house and that is what woke us up. Carroll immediately jumped out of bed and I was behind her. By the time I got into the den, Kristin had already been shot. And I didn’t realize it, but my wife had already been shot and was lying down and Kristin was down. (Henschel) was still in the room and my son, who was still living at home, came down the hall. During that period of time, there were three shots that were fired at me and I believe that with my movement to protect my son — because I’m thinking that, ‘He’s going to kill us all,’ — he missed.”
In a hellacious spray of bullets, Carroll and Kristin were gone. Kennedy recovered from his gunshot wounds and is now a police officer. Henschel escaped in the chaos but was apprehended later that night at his home, about two miles from where the Diblers lived. He was found guilty Aug. 23, 2002, and received a life prison term after the 12 jurors were unable to reach a unanimous decision on the death penalty. It was reported by the El Paso Times at the time that, “jurors wiped away tears as Kristin Dibler’s older brother, Rob, doubled over crying. Henschel also cried as he told the family of his victims how sorry he was for killing the people who had once been like a second family to him.” The Times also reported that Kennedy spoke directly to Henschel and said, “Because of you, those stars are painfully blotted from our sky. Heaven is a place you will never see.”
Those years were a time of enormous pain and emptiness for Dibler, who somehow carried on as the Mountain West Conference coordinator of men’s basketball officials, a position he had accepted in 1998. He had long ago mastered that job and could operate on auto pilot, but carrying on in life seemed as futile as solving a Rubik’s Cube in the dark. He searched for answers in a southwest desert about nine miles from the house that was no longer a home, paying no mind to the snakes that could surprise him in the vast darkness. The desert once was a place where he retreated with his family and dogs for a carefree day of riding dune buggies. Now it was a place where he searched for his lost soul somewhere in that vast expanse of sand.
“There was something about a trip to the desert after visiting the cemetery and talking to Carroll and Kristin that seemed like the right thing to do,” Dibler said. “The peace and tranquility after I kicked sand and talked and fussed with the Lord gave me the strength to go on for another day. I just felt like I had the Lord one on one in the desert.”
And he somehow continued as the leader of his family, rallying them within weeks of the tragedy with words that came from the heart, even if he knew it would take everything he had to practice what he preached.
“We were all completely distraught and he got us all together,” said Carrie, the Diblers’ eldest daughter. “I don’t remember what was said in his little speech, but it was so inspirational that it made us smile through our tears and gave us the courage to look up and see the brighter road ahead. We don’t know why this has happened now, but there’s some good that is going to be coming our way.”
Elusive answers gradually revealed themselves and no one was more vital than Missy Haywood, who came into his life, Dibler said, “when I needed a strong friend the most.” Missy had been widowed April 13, 1995, when her husband of 23 years, Charlie, died of a heart attack at the age of 44 while playing racquetball. There was a slight connection since Missy had been acquainted with Carroll through a group that regularly gathered to play the dice game Bunco. Matthew Haywood, the youngest of Missy’s two sons, had also been friends with Kristin when the two were children. Bobby and Missy connected through mutual friends and a romance slowly developed as they together sought out answers.
“He was in very bad shape,” Missy said of Dibler when she first got to know him. “We had both lost the love of our lives, so I could relate to what he was going through. And I think it helped him just to talk about it. We say we know how it feels, but we don’t know how it feels. Losing a spouse, I did know how it felt. Just seeing that my boys and I survived helped him know that even though you don’t think you’re going to live through it, you do.”
The time would come in the summer of 2008 when Bobby and Missy went up to Ruidoso, New Mexico, to get in some four-wheeling. Talking as they had done so often the previous five or six years, Dibler suddenly picked some wildflowers and asked Missy to marry him. On Nov. 14, 2009, nearly 44 years after he married Carroll, Dibler was united in marriage with someone he describes as, “my shining star in the sky. She is a very strong lady. Without her, who knows?”
Maybe answers came elusively during all those trips he made to the desert, but they eventually reached him. Dibler had the courage to carry on after fate handed him a burden no one should ever be asked to carry. He might have retired years ago, allowing the horrible circumstances of that night in 2000 to render him a spent and sullen man. Instead, Dibler has dared to pick up the pieces of a shattered life and will continue to be indispendable to the officiating community for who knows how many more years to come.
“Bobby is one of the best coordinators in the country when it comes to officiating,” said Dan Butterly, senior associate commissioner of the Mountain West Conference. “He’s well respected not only among the officials, but coaches, as well. He’s able to listen, understand and is able to calmly and professionally manage any issue that is brought forth to him.”
Added Jeff Hurd, commissioner of the Western Athletic Conference: “Bobby, deservedly so, is the most highly respected individual in the officiating community. He’s devoted his entire career to the betterment of NCAA men’s basketball officiating.”
But his greatest accomplishment is the family he raised from his heart and then rebuilt with everything he had in him. Carrie is a packaging consultant for Tricorbraun in Dallas. Kellie is a teacher at Bel Air Middle School in El Paso. Rob is the boys’ basketball coach at Bel Air High School. His three surviving children have given Dibler eight grandchildren. And they have all the love one could imagine for a man who has been so much more than a father.
“He worked very, very hard to build a family the right way,” Rob Dibler said, “and then that was taken away. For him to rebuild that process again has been incredible.”
For Kellie Dibler-Smith, her father all but wears the cape of Superman.
“He’s just brilliant at what he does,” she said. “I’ve always looked up to him. He’s like a rock. He has this amazing strength that I think has moved us all into learning how to cope without our mom and sister. We all hit a low point and then we all leaned on each other. My dad is extremely strong, even though he hit rock bottom.”
It’s been a remarkable recovery.
“He’s just incredible,” Carrie said. “He has always had such an incredible inner strength. I don’t know where he gets it from, but he’s got the power to just change and find the best out of every situation.”
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